United States Secretary of State Mike Pompeo held out the possibility on Tuesday that the Trump administration may consider easing sanctions on Iran and other nations to help fight the coronavirus pandemic but gave no concrete sign it plans to do so.
The comments reflect a shift in tone by the US State Department, which has come under withering criticism for its hard line towards sanctions relief even in the face of a call by the United Nations secretary-general to ease US economic penalties on Tehran as it battles the virus.
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At least 2,898 people in Iran have died from COVID-19 and the number of confirmed cases in the country has reached 44,605, according to John Hopkins University.
Speaking to reporters, Pompeo stressed that humanitarian and medical supplies are exempt from sanctions that Washington reimposed on Tehran after President Donald Trump unilaterally withdrew from the Iran nuclear deal with world powers in 2018.
But a report by Human Rights Watch in October found that “broad restrictions on financial transactions, coupled with aggressive rhetoric from US officials, have drastically constrained the ability of Iranian entities to finance humanitarian imports, including vital medicines and medical equipment”.
This month, Iran asked the International Monetary Fund for five billion dollars in emergency funding to help it fight the pandemic – the first time since 1960 that Tehran has sought assistance from the international lender.
Asked if there might come a point at which the US might reevaluate its stance on easing sanctions on Iran, Pompeo told a news conference: “We evaluate all of our policies constantly, so the answer is – would we ever rethink? – Of course.”
Asked about such relief on March 20, Pompeo simply said US sanctions do not apply to medical and other humanitarian goods.
The Trump administration is pursuing a “maximum pressure” policy to try to force the Islamic Republic to curb its nuclear, missile and regional activities.
Iran’s foreign minister has accused the US on Twitter of engaging in “medical terror,” prompting Pompeo’s spokeswoman, Morgan Ortagus, on Monday to copy his tweet and say: “Stop lying. … It’s not the sanctions. It’s the regime.”
A UN human rights expert called on Tuesday for lifting international sanctions against countries ranging from Iran to North Korea and Venezuela to ensure that food supplies reach hungry populations during the coronavirus pandemic.
Pompeo has been sharply criticised for the administration’s stance on Iran sanctions. In the last month, the US has repeatedly tightened sanctions on Iran, notably seeking to make it harder for it to sell oil abroad.
On Sunday, Washington Post columnist Jackson Diehl published a piece under the headline: “Pompeo’s pandemic performance ensures his place among the worst secretaries of state ever.”
“Even close U.S. allies, such as Britain, are calling on the Trump administration to ease sanctions that are inhibiting shipment of medical supplies and humanitarian aid to Iran’s 80 million people,” he wrote. “Yet Pompeo appears to view the epidemic as a handy means to compound ‘maximum pressure.’ To what end?”